Laurel Canyon. Epix. Sunday, May 31, 10 p.m.
Right out of Tucson, Arizona, where they were biggest band around, the members of Alice Cooper were getting a rough reception as they tried to break into the L.A. scene. Record companies wouldn’t even see them, and the music clubs along the Sunset Strip would soon regret if they did. “This one night, the music we played was just white noise,” recalls Alice himself. “Within four minutes we had cleared the place. Only one person was left standing there. And it was Frank Zappa.” Who asked: “What was that?”
Zappa invited the band over to his home studio, located in the city’s hilly Laurel Canyon neighborhood in a log cabin that used to belong silent-movie actor Tom Mix. (He said to drop by at 7, meaning p.m., but they assumed it was a.m., and Zappa blearily listened to the audition in a bathrobe while sucking on a cup of coffee.) At that hour, the music sounded even louder and more incomprehensible, but Zappa signed them to his Bizarre Records label anyway. “Invariably, when they would play, people would leave the room,” he explained later. “And I knew they had something.”
That’s just one of the many delicious, hilarious, fascinating, and sometimes poignant anecdotes in Epix’s two-part Laurel Canyon, one of the great rock ‘n’ roll documentaries of all time. Debuting Sunday and concluding on June 7, Laurel Canyon is a warm remembrance of things past for anybody who was part of the 1960s, and an instructive text about why we loved it so much for anybody who wasn’t. It’s history, it’s gossip, it’s a love letter, and you can dance to it.
The two-and-a-half hour documentary recounts the story of the Los Angeles rock scene that sprang to life in the mid-’60s and lasted a loopy, throbbing decade before breaking up on the shoals of disco and New Wave. Its capital was the rustic, woodsy enclave of Laurel Canyon, tucked away in the hills above the Sunset Strip, where scores of the band members lived, loved, rehearsed, ingested a bodacious amount of drugs, and generally flew their freak flag out of sight of the straight society below.
Laurel Canyon weaves the history of the music and its enchanted cavern together in a tale that twists and turns like the canyon’s narrow roads, but never loses its way. It’s got sex: How an affair between between Mamas and Papas members Denny Doherty and Michelle Phillips poisoned and eventually killed the band. At the opposite end of the promiscuity spectrum, comedian Steve Martin recounts a conversation with Linda Ronstadt after they’d been dating for two weeks. “Steve,” she asked curiously, “do you often date women and not try to sleep with them?”
It’s got drugs: Omnipresent rock photographer Henry Diltz, who shot hundreds of album covers and thousands of candid photos that made their way into magazines and books, emerged from his Laurel Canyon home and thought he heard Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young rehearsing in a backyard down the block, a common occurrence. Wandering over to snap some pictures, he discovered it wasn’t exactly a jam session. “I didn’t realize their little meeting was to have a little bumper dust,” Diltz says, using one of the early names for the new drug, cocaine, that was starting to sweep through Laurel Canyon. No matter; the band obligingly posed with the coke, blithely heedless of where the photo might turn up.
And of course it’s got rock ‘n’ roll: Members of what would become the Byrds, then a scuffling acoustic folk group, were enthralled when they heard the jangling electric guitars of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. At their next gig at the Troubador, a hootenanny-style club on the Strip, they plugged in their own guitars, horrifying the owner but wowing the fans. The band added a couple of members (Drums! A 12-string electric guitar!) and set about adapting a discarded demo record by Bob Dylan their new manager had gotten hold of. They were perplexed by the cryptic and out-of-tune song, but the manager was right: In early 1965, “Mr. Tambourine Man“ was a smash hit. Dylan, catching a preview at one of the clubs, was surprised: “Wow, man you can dance to it.”
“Mr. Tambourine Man“ was like a musical cue ball streaking across a pool table, sending chaotic ricochets in every direction, except they all seemed to bounce eventually to Laurel Canyon. With their proceeds from the record, Byrds Chris Hillman, David Crosby, and Roger McGuinn left their crowded crash pads for houses in the canyon. In Ohio, folkie Richie Furay heard it and packed for Los Angeles, where he founded a new band called the Buffalo Springfield, which got a gig as the house band at the riotous Whisky A Go Go, and most of its members got digs in Laurel Canyon.
Another new electrified band that hooked up at the Whisky (and, of course, Laurel Canyon) was the Doors and its lunatic front man, Jim Morrison. The inevitably drunken Morrison screamed, shouted, and flung himself around the stage like the servant of a berserk puppetmaster, and his lyrics suggested that underneath all the peace and love lay something much darker. To his critics, Morrison offered the back of his hand: “They hate because we’re so good,” he says in an early interview included in the documentary. (Of course, it’s just barely possible there were other reasons.)
The Morrison interview is just one bit of a remarkable archive cache hunted down by director Lisa Ellwood (whose previous work includes films on Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson, as well as the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). It includes not only a host of old American Bandstands, but unseen home movies in which Morrison bicycles around Los Angeles in nothing but a pair of shorts, Michelle Phillips dances goofily in her back yard, and Zappa melodramatically drops to the ground dead during a gunfight with toy six-shooters. Best of all is Peter Tork’s audition for The Monkees. (He got it when his pal Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield was turned down for having a snaggletooth.) “Why do you want to be a Monkee?” asks an off-screen producer. “Well, it’s my natural inheritance,” replies the deapans Tork.
The Monkees, too, wound up in Laurel Canyon, where drummer Micky Dolenz’s house became the site for regular pingpong tournaments. Oddly, though Laurel Canyon had been the home to many stars in the 1940s and 1950s, including Mix, Harry Houdini and Natalie Wood, its popularity had lapsed and it wasn’t expensive at all when the Byrds started the migration there. As the rock ‘n’ roll world settled in, it became not exactly a commune but something more like a really cool college dorm, where there was always something to eat at Mama Cass Elliot’s place and many of the doors remained unlocked even when the bands were out on tour.
It was that practice that provided the first harbinger that the karma of the 1960s was sliding south. Johnny Echols of the group Love came home from tour to find his long-time-no-see folksinger buddy Bobby Beausoleil hanging out in the living room. Surprised but unperturbed, Echols chatted with Beausoleil for a while before hearing a sound from inside the bedroom. “Is there somebody in there?” he asked. “Yeah, Sadie,” Beausoleil replied. That would be Susan “Sadie” Atkins, the future Manson Family murderess, who emerged, bedraggled and malodorous, a few minutes later. Beausoleil may have looked more respectable, but he, too, would kill for Manson.
The Manson murders took place several miles from Laurel Canyon, but they seemed much closer. The house where Sharon Tate and her friends were killed had until recently been rented by record producer Terry Melcher, a Laurel Canyon regular, and several members of the canyon crowd had been regular visitors. Two of the Manson girls had gone to high school with Mark Volman of the Turtles, another canyon resident. Everybody quit picking up hitchhikers; David Crosby promptly bought a shotgun. “Hippies were not harmless anymore,” remembers Alice Cooper.
Over the next 18 months, the vibes only turned worse. Drugs were taking an increasing toll: The drunken and delirious Morrison died on a dry-out trip to Paris. Several Laurel Canyon bands played at the murderous Altamont rock concert in Northern California, where Hell’s Angels “security guards” stabbed one fan to death and beat others with pool cues. (The manager of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, of the bands that played, refused to go. “The Hell’s Angels were gonna be doing all the security,” he shudders in the documentary, “and people applauded, like that that was a cool thing.”) Not only did the canyon’s favorite loving couple, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash, break up, but Mitchell pulled the trigger in a telegram.
Laurel Canyon did not end with the 1960s, at least not the the calendar years. The Eagles and the real glory years of Linda Ronstadt still lay ahead. But little by little, the feeling slipped away. “It became edgy, colder, less truthful,” recalls Crosby. Nobody can pinpoint the date the music died, but it was certainly gone by the time a quadruple drug murder took place in Laurel Canyon in 1981. As somebody once said, turn, turn, turn.